By Christopher Zoukis
A broad coalition of public interest, civil rights and other groups has filed comments with the agency asking it to expand its protections in the area in the wake of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision last fall to control rates charged for communications services in jails, prisons and detention centers for immigrants,.
In a 3-2 ruling in October, the FCC adopted general $1.65-per-15-minutes caps on local and long-distance rates for inmate calls, lowered by as much as 50% an existing cap on interstate calls (with per-minute tiered rates ranging from 11 to 22 cents, for specialized service and small markets), and set sharp new limits on the fees and charges that can be added onto inmate calls. The agency’s press release said it acted to address “excessive rates and egregious fees,” noting prisoners’ calls could run as high as $14 per minute, with add-on fees and charges raising total costs by up to another 40%.
A February 8 filing with the agency by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – a coalition of over 50 civil rights, labor and public interest groups – applauded those actions, but also urged the FCC to act in other areas identified as part of its multi-year probe of whether telecommunications charges to or from corrections and detention facilities have been set at predatory levels.
Calling communications often “essential to vindicate other civil and human rights,” the coalition’s comments seek further FCC action in such areas as: video visitation and other new forms of communication; protections for inmates who are deaf, hearing-impaired or disabled; plus a cap on rates for international calls; and a requirement that telecommunications providers submit contracts and data on costs for prison services.
Despite objections by the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice, video visitations are replacing in-person visits in some penal facilities, at often high charges. Because of lower income and “digital-divide” differences in the availability of home equipment and services, replacing in-person visits with video visitation will also have greater impact on minority group members, the coalition noted.
The coalition comments also asked the FCC to look at abuses in written electronic communications available to prisoners and their families. Unlike ordinary e-mail, inmate communications are usually subject to charges per message and limits on characters. Ancillary charges for written electronic communications – such as monthly account and “convenience” fees -- can be, the coalition stated, as shockingly exorbitant as those the FCC has already addressed for prison phone calls.
The FCC ought to act to set fair price caps for international phone calls, the coalition further urged, supporting a 16-cent per-minute rate. It offered examples, supplied by coalition member the American Immigration Lawyers Association, of immigration detention facilities charging as much as $45 for an international call lasting 15 minutes. Similarly, deaf and hearing-impaired inmates can face per-minute rates of $6 for teletypewriter-to-teletypewriter intrastate calls, and those who communicate primarily through sign language lack video relay systems, even though such systems might be available free of cost to jails, prisons and detention centers.
The coalition comments also complained that inmate communication services providers have been able to adopt fee-splitting arrangements with third-party financial services like MoneyGram and Western Union to evade FCC restrictions on fees for money transfers to prisoners. Finally, the coalition urged the agency to require the prison phone industry – which it notes is not very competitive and is seeing consolidation -- to submit data at least annually.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com